Exposing Ideological Conceits
Few discoveries are more irritating than those which expose the pedigree of ideas. Sharp definitions and unsparing analysis would displace the veil beneath which society dissembles its divisions, would make political disputes too violent for compromise and political alliances too precarious for use, and would embitter politics with all the passions of social and religious strife.
Lord Acton, Essay on Liberty, p. 62 quoted in , p. 346
In the summary of John Marini’s, Unmasking the Administrative State: The Crisis of American Politics in the Twenty-First Century we are told that
The election of Donald J. Trump to the presidency shocked the political establishment, triggering a wave of hysteria among the bicoastal elite that may never subside. The biggest shockwaves of all, however, were felt not in the progressive parishes of Manhattan or San Francisco, but in the halls of the political elite’s cherished and oft-overlooked center of power—Washington, DC’s sprawling “administrative state”—for President Trump represented an existential threat to its denizens, who came to be known as “swamp creatures.”
Reading this on my Facebook page a friend responded that “Trump has left most of the administrative positions VACANT. Basic abuse and neglect of the administration is what he’s doing. Some genius ‘unmasking’ that is.”
While it is true that many of the administrative positions in the Trump White House are still vacant, this isn’t why Marini says that the election and subsequent administration of Donald Trump have triggered the reaction it has.
Yes, many administrative positions remain empty and yet, the Republic still stands, the economy is growing and the country as a whole seems to be chugging along. It seems that whatever else might be said for good or ill for President Trump, his administration at least raises the question that Marini explores in his book that rule by experts is over-rated.
There is no question that President Trump (who I didn’t vote for) is a divisive personality–but he also owns this about himself. And by his own admission, he is not a morally upright man. He brags about cutting “good deals” in business, is an unapologetic self-promoter and takes a great deal of pride in his sexual promiscuity.
Nevertheless, the Republic endures. When Marini says the Trump presidency has “unmasked” the pretensions of the administration, he is not saying that Trump is a good man. Nor is he saying that Trump has only lifted the veil on the ideas of the Left.
Trump’s presidency (rather than simply Trump himself) not only calls into question the (progressive) commitment to rule by experts, it also casts doubt on the (conservative) notion of rule by the virtuous. Neither expertise nor virtue is evidently what effective government requires.
Or maybe more accurately, both conservatives and progressives have flawed notions of virtue and expertise.
Both ideologies I think are too narrow and fail to take into account the complexities of governance. If we are not (as the right says) electing a Pastor-in-Chief, neither are we electing a Professor-in-Chief.
This isn’t to disparage either pastors or professors (and I am both) but to highlight that for too long we have sought to find in the president and other elected officials a reflection of our own, idealized self-image. Trump hasn’t just pulled back the curtain on only progressive conceits. He’s done the same for conservatives.
Finally, none of this suggests that (a) he is a morally good man or (b) that he did this intentionally. But did it he has I think.
As I was finishing this post, a priest friend sent me a quote from Malcolm Muggeridge that speaks to the underlying discomfort of both Christians on the Left and the Right have with not just the Trump administration but the Obama administration as well. Muggeridge writes:
I’m saying that contrary to what has been the practice and indeed dynamic of the church in the past century, that to identify Christian hopes with an earthly cause – however ostensibly noble – is disastrous, because all earthly causes end in total disappointment.
Black balloons for the lost orphans
My article about the Hogar Rafael Ayu and Holy Trinity Orthodox Monastery in Guatemala was just published by the Acton Institute. Here’s the first paragraph:
The protesters were mostly high school and university students. They carried black balloons, dozens of them – one for each teenaged orphaned girl who died while in police custody in a March 2017 schoolroom fire. Walking in solidarity with the hundreds of other protesters down Guatemala City’s 6A Calle was a small group of Serbian Orthodox Christian nuns. The abbess of the monastery, Madre Inés, told me that she and the nuns of Holy Trinity Orthodox Monastery in Villa Nueva, Guatemala came to the crowded Cons
You can read the rest here: Black balloons for the lost orphans | Acton Institute
Carpentry students at the Municipality Workshop School. Photo by Melanie Dent
Orthodox Witness and the Four Cities of the West
Writing at National Review, Michael Gibson, a co-founder of 1517 Fund, writes about the need for a fuller exploration of Western civilization. His observation offers some interesting insights for Orthodox Christians interested in political theology and the Church’s witness in the Public Square.
We must balance, Gibson argues, the Roman Empire’s tendency for “universalism” with the virtues embodied in the other great cities (and so cultures) of Western civilization: Athens, London, and ultimately, Jerusalem.
“For conservatives and libertarians to save the West,” he writes, they “must return to its roots. There is more to the West than Rome. We must return to London, Athens, and Jerusalem.”
As a practical matter “This will involve channeling our traditions of exploration, the quick Greek intelligence pushing competition among diverse Greek city-states, the dynamism unlocked by the common law of London paired with the idea of progress, and the heroic revelations and commitments of Jerusalem.”
First, Athens. By ancient accounts, Aristotle compiled some 170 constitutions of city-states to write his Politics. Competition was not reserved for the Olympics; it pervaded all activities. It drove advances in drama, philosophy, science, and mathematics. “The West” is too homogeneous a whole. If nations truly differ, their peoples can explore without fear of being outlawed by universal law. If universities truly differ, research programs will chart new courses into the unknown.
London: The rule of law is one of the strongest factors in the origin and causes of the wealth of nations. But it’s not sufficient as an explanation. According to the economist Deirdre McCloskey, the industrial revolution started in England and nowhere else for a reason — its pervasive spirit of tinkering and invention, of improving one’s lot through trade, of prudence matched by risk — all this led to the enrichment of the world.
Lastly, Jerusalem. The Judeo-Christian theory of truth contrasts with the Greek. While scientific theories describe universal truths that hold for all time, the truths of Jerusalem are specific to a people, to a time, to a place. The theme is most powerfully expressed by the story of Abraham, in which God’s command to Abraham defies public reason. If we are to resist the madness of crowds, we need to mark our faith in independent judgment as sacred.
He concludes with a call for a diversity of “political order.” Rather than governments “in the mold of a single empire, he calls for “a myriad of independent states — monarchies, republics, democracies, something altogether new — competing to bring out the best in each other and their members.”
Such diversity of communities is central to Orthodox spirituality. While they share an underlying dogmatic, liturgical and ascetical unity, local (i.e., national) Orthodox Churches have their own ethos or flavor. A visitor to any Orthodox parish in America is unlikely to confuse a Greek parish for a Russian or either for a Serbian, Antiochian or Ukrainian.
In fact, this diversity among Orthodox parishes can be so striking as to cause a visitor to wonder if these communities are all part of the same Church. This reflects not only our concrete differences but also the uncritical reduction of unity to uniformity.
The political philosophy, to return to Gibson, rooted in Athens, London, Jerusalem and Rome is a natural fit–or at least a not uneasy ally–with Orthodox Christian anthropology and sociology.
Friendship Not Greed
In other words, it’s not the case that market capitalism requires or generates loveless people. More like the contrary. Markets and even the much-maligned corporations encourage friendships wider and deeper than the atomism of a full-blow socialist regime or the claustrophobic, murderous atmosphere of a “traditional” village. Modern capitalist life is love-saturated. Olden life was not loving; communitarian life was not; and actually existing socialist life decidedly was not. No one dependent on a distant god such as Gosplan or Tradition can feel safe. Paradoxically, a market linked so obviously to our individual projects make us safer and more loving.
Deirdre N. McCloskey (2006)ook, The Bourgeois Virtues, p. 138
Looking For A Home
Ready for Liturgy
I’m looking to rent a space near UW-Madison for a church. Any suggestions?
For the last several months, the mission I serve (Ss Cyril & Methodius) has been meeting Sunday mornings in a space we rent from the Lutheran campus ministry program at UW. They have been nothing but wonderful hosts but I would like the parish to start the new school year in a permanent facility so we could have services and programs during the week. We’ve been working with a real estate agent to find a property but commercial properties are hesitant to lease to a church.
In part, this is because the owners aren’t really sure what we would be doing during the week and are worried we would disturb other tenants. This is understandable but an Orthodox parish is a lot closer to a monastery than a megachurch in terms of noise and activity.
Reading between the lines, it also seems given the rather secular character of Madison and our wanting to be near UW, the landlords are also concerned that we would attract vandalism. This is an understandable concern. When I was in northern California, my church was frequently vandalized.
All that said, if you know of a place that would be open to renting to a quiet church, please let me know privately.
And, if you would, please pray that we find a permanent home soon.
Contempt Isn’t A Winning Strategy
Yesterday, I was at a meeting at UW-Madison. While not mentioning President Trump, the administrator who was speaking mentioned in passing that the country has changed in the last year or so and that we are now living in a context that is politically divisive. A few things caught my attention.
First was the speakers casually assumption that everyone in the room agreed with his assessment that we are now living in politically divided times. Second, that the cause of our divisions is the election of Donald Trump as POTUS.
While I would agree with the speaker that we live in politically fractious times and that Trump’s election as POTUS figures in this, I don’t think that Trump election is the cause. Yes, President Trump is a divisive figure. So, however, is President Obama.
Trump divides by his manner. He can be impulsive, rude and vulgar. Obama is much more polished but he pursued policies that were antithetical not only the moral values of many Americans but were also an assault on religious liberty. His rhetoric on a range of social and economic issues matters could also be divisive.
Deep, and sometimes bitter, political divisions plagued us during the Bush and Clinton administrations as well. Neither side has a lock on either civic virtue or civic vice.To suggest otherwise is wrong morally and factually.
In any case, the speaker seemed to me to be secure in his assumption that everyone in the room shared his evaluation of our current political situation and its causes. While state employees have a right to their political views, I found it disheartening and worrisome that a member of the UW administration presumed that I agreed with him.
What brought this all to mind, is a video making the rounds. In it, Hillary Clinton explains to an audience in India why she lost the 2016 Presidential election.
The take away for Christians and others of good will is this. We need to be careful that we don’t presume people agree with us. And, if they disagree with us, we need to be careful that we don’t impute malicious motives for their disagreement.
Judge for yourself why Ms. Clinton thinks she lost. Based on the video, however, it appears to me that she thinks she lost because, as one (liberal) commentator said, voters
…sensed her contempt and lack of concern for their predicament. It wasn’t hard. She had contempt during the campaign even when she was under pressure to act like she cared, and it’s no surprise that she has it when she’s free of that pressure. To express her contempt and lack of empathy now is simply to revel in the freedom of not having to appeal to the people for their votes.
Contempt for those who disagree with us is never a winning strategy.
If you look at the map of the United States, there is all that red in the middle where Trump won. I won in the coasts, I win, you know, Illinois, Minnesota, places like that. But what the map doesn’t show you is that I won the places that represent two thirds of America’s gross domestic product. So I won the places that are optimistic, diverse, dynamic, moving forward, and his whole campaign, “make America great again,” was looking backwards. You know you didn’t like black people getting rights, you don’t like women getting jobs, you don’t want to see that Indian American succeeding more than you are. Whatever your problem is, I’m going to solve it.
Source: The Weekly Standard
Most of Life is Not Under My Control
Political decisions are rarely straightforward or simple. This seems especially to be the case in what National Review‘s Victor Davis Hanson calls our “Manichean” political age. He makes a point about Trump voters that I think has a broader importance for our political life. He writes:
…there are understandably legitimate differences in conservative attitudes toward Trump, the first U.S president without prior political or military experience and service. But should such acrimony extend to the Trump voter?
In attributing moral or ethical laxity to Trump voters, Never Trumpers sidestep the argument that in a Manichean world, not voting for Trump was a de facto vote for the alternative — a likely 16-year Obama-Clinton continuum. Is condoning Trump’s antics by default the moral equivalent of its practical antithesis: ensuring a Supreme Court, economy, and foreign policy that would, in conservatives’ views, radically injure millions of Americans for a generation?
If it were really unethical or foolhardy to vote for Trump, is it by extension far more unethical toserve Trump? In other words, are H. R. McMaster, Jim Mattis, John Kelly, Betsy DeVos, Nikki Haley, and Mike Pompeo far more morally suspect for empowering such a president, in a fashion that outweighs their principled notions of serving the country?
Is it still sustainable to suggest that Trump is not a conservative but a dangerous liberal or demagogic wolf in conservative sheep’s clothing? The doctrinaire conservative Heritage Foundation now claims that two-thirds of its proverbial 334 conservative agenda items have been already met by Trump — and at a pace far faster than that achieved even by former president Reagan.
Casting a vote means accepting trade-offs. Often this means tolerating policies or character traits that we find misguided, offensive or even evil.
In the face of this, I can decide not to vote. But not voting doesn’t exempt me from moral responsibility for the outcome of an election. Deciding to not decide is, after all, to still make a decision as youth ministers everywhere remind their young charges.
What I need to always keep in mind is that life is made up of many moving pieces, some of which are on fire, and most of which are not under my control.
It is this last point–that most of life isn’t under my control–that makes Christian witness in the Public Square complicated, often frustrating, controversial and deficient, but always interesting and challenging.
Marriage, Market, and Politics in Middlemarch
Note that the market here is not portrayed as destroying other values, like love and fidelity, as is often the case in both Marxist and conservative critiques, but as putting them on a realistic and stable foundation. Moreover, a successful life does not consist of throwing off authority or vindicating the authentic self, but in creating enduring associations with others. Middlemarch is thus a riposte to those who think that the essence of liberalism must loosen rather than strengthen the bonds of community and family.
And it is also clear that Eliot contrasts politics unfavorably with the market and a market infused family life. The story takes place in the shadow of the struggles to enact the Reform Bill — probably the most important democratizing act in British history, greatly expanding the franchise and making it more effective by eliminating or at least tempering rotten boroughs. But the people acting together without the bonds of market or familial associations are not portrayed favorably. When they condemn Dr. Lydgate, they are mostly motivated by malice and envy. Political actors are generally represented as quite self-interested. At the end of the book, some characters speculate how they can use the initial failure of the Reform Bill to get into the House of Lords. If the danger of marriage is that it will be built on illusions, however benevolent, the danger of politics is that it may rest on sheer malevolence.
Of course, Middlemarch is not a political tract. But Eliot makes important points about the relation of private life, public life, and the spirit of market liberalism that are as powerful today as they were when she wrote them almost 150 years ago.
Source: Law & Liberty
A Sensible Response
Dick’s Sporting Good made what I think is a very sensible response to the recent shooting at Parkland High School. As they say in their letter:
- We will no longer sell assault-style rifles, also referred to as modern sporting rifles. We had already removed them from all DICK’S stores after the Sandy Hook massacre, but we will now remove them from sale at all 35 Field & Stream stores.
- We will no longer sell firearms to anyone under 21 years of age.
- We will no longer sell high capacity magazines.
- We never have and never will sell bump stocks that allow semi-automatic weapons to fire more rapidly.
They also call on legislators “to enact common sense gun reform and pass the following regulations:
- Ban assault-style firearms
- Raise the minimum age to purchase firearms to 21
- Ban high capacity magazines and bump stocks
- Require universal background checks that include relevant mental health information and previous interactions with the law
- Ensure a complete universal database of those banned from buying firearms
- Close the private sale and gun show loophole that waives the necessity of background checks.”
While some might disagree about the prudence of the proposed regulations (primarily, will they accomplish what they are enacted to do), we can’t fault Dick’s Sporting Goods for their willingness to shape corporate policy in line with their moral vision for the common good. In refusing to sell certain kinds of firearms, they are willing to accept the financial costs for doing what they see as the morally right thing to do.
You can read the whole letter here.
Coercion, Paternalism, and The Common Good
In his recent review of The Once and Future Liberal for The Gospel Coalition, [author and former Obama White House staffer, Michael] Wear (sort of) critiques identity politics, lamenting the fact that “identity politics empowers people to speak for others without their consent.” Yet in the same article he suggests, “We ought to see our fates as inextricably linked with the fate of our neighbors – and act politically on their behalf.”
This gets to the heart of the problem with the Love Your Neighbor strategy. Our allegedly loving act of selflessly voting on behalf of our neighbors is speaking for our neighbors without their consent. It naively assumes that there is an identifiable, agreed-upon common good in our current political environment. This mindset is also highly patronizing towards others by assuming that we have a better understanding of what is best for our neighbors than they do.
We simply do not agree upon what the common good is in America. Acting politically on our neighbors’ behalf is ultimately one tribe’s (or coalition of tribe’s) vision of the common good versus another’s, carried out by means of the coercive power of the State. Whoever can garner 50.1% of the vote gets to coerce the other 49.9% into abiding by the other tribe’s vision of the common good whether the 49.9% of our neighbors believe it to actually be “good” or not. Even if our neighbor abhors the “good” we have forced upon them through our loving act of voting for their good, they’ll just have to live with it and accept it as the blessing from God we believe it to be.
Practically speaking, what does it even look like to vote for the good of the community motivated by love rather than individualistic self-interest anyway? Would the loving thing be to take a poll and vote with the majority of our community even if it were to compromise our sincerely held beliefs? Or do we go against the majority of the community because we know what they desire will actually harm them? The “community” calls that hate.